What the CBI raid on NDTV means for India’s democracy

New Delhi: People in India know enough about politics to know that a CBI raid is never really just a CBI raid. The country’s leading investigation agency has, for decades, been a convenient instrument for ruling parties to settle scores with adversaries. The double standards involved in filing an FIR against NDTV and raiding the residence of Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy on June 5 will persuade many that the move was a political one. That the government would target the one TV channel which has been resolutely critical of NDA rule over a relatively modest bank loan while no action is taken on bigger businesses defaulting on vastly bigger amounts suggests that factors beyond the rule of law are at work.

Some believe that the raid is just a way to intimidate NDTV to go slow on its criticism of the government. It is not clear how long the decision was in the works but the raid happened less than a week after an exchange between anchor Nidhi Razdan and BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra on June 1. Razdan asked Patra to take back his allegation that NDTV has an “agenda” and asked him to leave the show when he refused to recant.

Regardless of its provenance, the effects of the raid are far-reaching. Comparisons to the Emergency are inevitable. Every authoritarian surge has its own imprint but one thing they have in common is in the size of the target that governments pick to send a message. In 1975, no Opposition leader or media organisation was too big for Indira Gandhi to take on. NDTV is a pretty big target too; it is India’s most well-known English cable TV channel and has a measure of international recognition. Prannoy Roy is the first big name in news television; for those over 40, he’s the one who moved TV beyond Doordarshan’s mind-numbing news, he was a psephologist during elections, he got you the world news each week and eventually became of part of the country’s cultural elite, feted by politicians, businesses & film stars. Raiding NDTV is a big deal. The channel’s current TRPs don’t matter; the fact that it is being targeted by a political machine at the height of its powers underlines that the channel still has influence.

What are the implications of the raid? As many point out, this is a signal to other media organisations that there are limits to the criticism that the government can tolerate. This not good news for India’s democracy because we now have a situation where the options for airing diverse political views are narrowing. Parliament is no longer effective as the space to debate issues, courts have a patchy record of defending rights (fears loom about its imminent decision on Aadhaar), the Opposition is weak and fragmented, universities are suppressed, the media is largely pro-establishment — and now the government is threatening organisations that offer a space for opposing views. The BJP’s quest for a public sphere shorn of any real criticism of the government continues, in ways reminiscent of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The targeting of NDTV will have other impacts. It will work to drive a wedge within secular, cosmopolitan Delhi. It is a moment for relationships in the capital to be clarified, based on who stands by the channel and who doesn’t. It is a chance for the State to observe who got agitated and worked the phones to rally support. The failure of civil society, opposition and the media to mobilise effectively around such a challenge to press freedom will embolden the powers that be to push boundaries further at opportune moments. The raid works as a dry run and a probing device to test the robustness of networks in the capital.

The development is not without its downsides for the BJP too. The party seems invulnerable after winning UP despite demonetisation. But taking on media figures like Roy and Ravish Kumar, for instance, can silently undercut the party’s standing among the middle classes whose support it wants to retain. The BJP has carried on with anti-minority rhetoric and allowed cow vigilantism to thrive assuming that Indians are either too busy or scared to bother with issues like stifling dissent. It is betting on the distraction of everyday Indian life to get its way but harassing well-regarded journalists is another issue altogether. It is one thing for faceless trolls to abuse journalists online one-to-one but quite a different optic for a government to be seen as actively intimidating a well-regarded channel. Power leaks at the point of excess, especially when the contest is framed as a moral drama between the powerful and the powerless. Ravish’s memorable (and viral) Facebook post after the CBI raid posits the situation in such terms.

The BJP needs to realise the risks of the situation. It needs to operate with the assurance that it has the finances and other instruments to win elections — and thus ought to have the confidence to absorb criticism from journalists. Getting after a TV channel can be construed as a sign of wanting to hide failures and be counterproductive over time. The courts will, of course, decide if there has been any wrongdoing. In the meantime, the government will need to deploy its zeal in a more even-handed manner, without fear or favour, to dispel the impression that it is misusing state agencies to tighten its grip on power at the expense of those it sees as its adversaries.